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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

my book club + book review: the art of hearing heartbeats by jan-philipp sendker

Title:  The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Author:  Jan-Philipp Sendker
Publisher:  Other Press (2012)


Synopsis: A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was the first book of a brand spankin' new book club I started with some of my friends earlier this summer (or spring if you are formal about summer starting four days ago). First, let me tell you about my book club. Or, more accurately, let me show you the banner of our online discussion group with our name...


Bahaha! Yes, we are now and forever more "The Bookleggers." Cute and campy, right? We'd like to think so. Anyway, let me get on with this review.

When our book club picked The Art of Hearing Heartbeats to read, I didn't know anything about it besides the fact that it was a love story. I'm glad to see I'm so selective. Fortunately, it turned out to be really good, jam-packed with these nuggets of wisdom that just blew my mind and really made me think. And as it turns out, I really enjoyed it!

The plot and themes presented in the book were really the nuggets of gold in Hearing Heartbeats. The narrator (of sorts), Julia, travels from New York to Burma, her father's childhood home, to follow the paper trail of her father, who disappeared from Julia's life four years prior to the story. As luck would have it, she finds a man named U Ba that tells her father's story in its entirety, from beginning to end. Tin Win, her father, was born a child that brought with him the superstition of illness, and this only proved itself right as his immediate family either died or abandoned him; he also became blind in the process. His childhood neighbor, Su Kyi, however, took the now-blinded and orphaned child into her home, encouraging him to cultivate his mind in the mountain monastery in their small village. This is where he meets Mi Mi, a crippled Burmese girl who turns out to be Tin Win's love interest. Through circumstances, the couple's budding love and impending marriage is disrupted by an unfortunate situation that bring's Tin Win to the city of Rangoon, and eventually the United States. Coming to terms with understanding her father's past and his undying love for this woman Mi Mi, who is not Julia's mother, frames the plot of the story. I love East Asian/Pacific Island culture, so that also helped me just eat this book up; if you like similar kinds of cultures, especially in the 1930-1950 era, I'm sure you would love it, too!

The lessons and nuggets of wisdom passed on in this book were plentiful. Everything from truly knowing your parents as more than caregivers to the human need for symbiosis, it was just incredible to see these truths come to light. No joke. At one point in the book, Julia asks, "What do we know about our parents, and what do they know about us? And if we don't even know the individuals who have accompanied us since birth - we not them and they not us - then what do we know about anyone at all?" And that was it for me, because it is so true. SO TRUE. After awhile, you take for granted the people you interact with on a daily basis, and you forget to ask them things that really matter instead of simply observing them in everyday life and passing judgment freely. I read this quote to my mom, who immediately said, "What do you want to know?" It was a really fantastic conversation we had, and my entire family joined in on it, too. For that conversation alone, this book was worth it for me.

*SPOILERS* Some of the situational things in the book are familiar, of course, as is true with any tragic kind of love story. For example, at one point, Tin Win and Mi Mi, while being separated, exchange love letters to each other, but because of Tin Win's relative who is sponsoring his schooling (and intercepting the letters), neither is receiving any of the letters. Very The Notebook-esque. Some elements of the story were also super poetic, which worked in its favor. For example, the title draws upon an ability acquired by Tin Win when he loses his vision at a young age. He can hear people's heartbeats and can adequately judge them based on this sound. I was like, "Who cares if that's super impossible. That is such a beautiful idea." *END SPOILERS*

The one thing I can say I didn't so much like about this book was the flow of the writing, but this was so menial compared to the message of this novel, it really didn't matter to me because I understood the process behind the book. I'll explain. Jan-Philipp Sendker originally wrote Hearing Heartbeats in German. Kevin Wiliarty translated it for its English-language debut. This translation is most likely why it's not as smooth as some highly-acclaimed classic novel written in the 16th century English old country. But as I said, it really didn't affect my view of the book because of the beautiful story and my knowledge of the fact it was a translation. In other words, it was forgivable.

As a last point, the end of the novel offers a fantastic twist that I didn't see coming, so if you read it (and I sincerely hope you consider doing so) know that I was totally blown away by it and was totally blindsided by the mere possibility of such a thing to be true! IT WAS GREAT!

Truly, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was amazing. If I had to, I would probably rate it 4.5/5, but the message the novel offers would definitely be 5/5. I hope you have the chance to pick it up sometime!

'Til next time.

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